Thursday, May 01, 2008

St. Mark 16:14-20 The Ascension of Our Lord

Today the church gathers on this great festival, the Ascension of our Lord, with the benefit of pondering one statement in its beloved creeds, “And he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.” It is a statement in the Creed which is straightforward enough that we often simply leave it at face value without pondering the magnitude of this action in the life of Jesus.

It is a confession of faith and an inclusion in the narrative of Christ’s way of salvation for reasons which ultimately retreat back to the creation account and God’s plan of having a fellowship with His creation. This article of the creed turns our gaze, ironically, to the depths of the human existence, which reaches down into the valley of death, into the zone of untouchable loneliness and rejected love. While hell is an illocal place for unbelief, this loneliness and some of the attributes of hell touch the lives of the inhabitants of this earth as well.

St. Paul, using psalm 68, makes an important remark to the Ephesians regarding the descent and ascension of Christ. St. Paul says, “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive; and gave gifts to men. Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.”

What St. Paul is pointing out for us concerning Christ’s ascension is that a gift is given in the ascension that is unique to this world. While hell is characterized as a place of torment, it has a fundamental characteristic that we overlook. This unfortunate characteristic is now a part of this world. The gifts which Jesus gives to men in His ascension is the very opposite of the characteristic of hell, and I want to recall to your minds the account of the rich man and Lazarus. The rich man is in hell and he is unnamed.

From what the account gives us, this rich man is utterly alone. He is individualized, singled out. He is “self-sufficient” as he was on the earth. In hell he can see heaven, though he cannot participate in its blessings. Lazarus, on the other hand, is in heaven and he is not alone. He rests in the arms of father Abraham. If you’ve ever wondered why it is Abraham rather than Jesus who is situated with Lazarus, the reason has everything to do with the gift given in Christ’s ascension.

The ascension of Christ points to the opposite end of human existence. This existence wrought by the bodily ascension of Christ embraces, as the opposite pole of utter solitude and loneliness, the possibility of contact with all other men through the fellowship of divine love and connectedness. We see this with Adam and Eve. Before sin there was a unity between Adam and Eve and oneness with God. Sin brought individuality to Adam and Eve. Each saw their own nakedness. The curses, too, were individualized. Oneness with God, unity with one another was lost.

This individuality is a fundamental characteristic of separation with God. Man’s unwillingness to receive from God, man’s desire to be self-sufficient, man’s being alone is the character of Satan and hell. We see this today in our world very clearly. The women’s liberation movement, the world’s attempt to divide races, war between different nationalities and more. These are individualized and the very evidence of Adam and Eve in sin and the rich man in the solitude of hell. This also is seen in man’s desire to avoid fellowship with Christ and His church.

What makes Christ’s ascension so important? Don’t we say that our salvation is because of Christ’s crucifixion? Indeed. But the reason our creeds include the ascension of Christ along with the confession of Christ’s crucifixion, death and resurrection is due to the fact that Christ ascends bodily to heaven. Jesus, who is God and Man, ascending into heaven, therefore, unites God and man. By Christ ascending into heaven, he re-establishes the fellowship between God the Father and mankind. His incarnation is this very reality within Himself and His ascension makes it real for us also.

Jesus unravels Satan’s quest for the world’s loneliness, individualization, and separation. Heaven is the contact and the home of the “human beings in the flesh” with “God in the flesh.” This coming together of God and man took place once and for all in Christ with his stride over life through death to new life. The resurrection and ascension of Christ is the final merging of man and God into oneness and a unity that carries with it an everlasting blessing.

Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, together, have enormous implications for the church today. It is true that Jesus is the Second Adam who came to restore man’s relationship with God. It is true that we become one with Christ through baptism and faith, thereby confirming Christ’s words that “he who believes and is baptized shall be saved.”

The bodily ascension of Christ therefore adds substance and concreteness to the church’s life around the altar. “One faith, One Lord, One baptism,” as St. Paul says, is significant. This Christian faith and life, which centers around the altar adorned with Christ’s body and blood, is the very opposite of the rich man’s conclusion in hell—nameless and alone. The Christian is no longer simply about himself. When the church gathers around the altar, we cast off the solitude of hell, along with the namelessness of the rich man. We become one with Jesus and unified with one another and Christ knows us intimately and by name.

This is Christ’s way. He came to take us from Satan, pull us out of what the world has become, and places us in a new paradise. Today, we participate in this otherworldly blessing as we eat and drink Christ. For it is in the eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood that we are no longer simply left to ourselves, but we are one with Christ, one with St. Paul, one with father Abraham. In this sacrament you participate in heaven now, as you are made holy, set apart to be God’s true creation, at peace, not forsaken and lost, but loved having the forgiveness of sins that Jesus so graciously atoned for on the cross.

All is complete and we simply await the day when we, like Lazarus, shall be gathered together with Abraham and all the saints, centered around the true throne with Jesus Christ in the center—the true individual, God and man, with us unified to him forever. So let us confess with the creed and the church of all ages that Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father, thereby uniting God and man, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

+Fr. Chadius